Thursday, October 31, 2013

The garden in Autumn - chores to cherish

There is something rather beautiful about the onset of autumn. The growing season stalls as the days shorten, the sun and sky work together to cast the autumn glow.

The autumn crocus push through and bring a vivid blue and gold highlight amongst the leaves and grass. Where there were once was blossom, there are now seeds and berries. The leaves are changing shape and colour then will fall to the ground ready to be collected.

The leaves are disturbed by the strengthening southern winds that signal rain and storms. The winds can reach a balmy 26 degrees at any time of the day, evening or night-time.

The animals, birds and insects are preparing for wilder weather. Harvesting and nest building in readiness for a new season when hunters roam and resources fade.

Always something to harvest; apples, chillies, cauliflower, carrots, beetroot, kale...

A veil of wood-smoke drifts across the surrounding pastures as the sun sets and the temperature dips.

Autumn, the guardian of energy and new life.

And to finish, some beautiful words from Sarah Mathew at The Cailleach Writes...

Samhain blessing

As winter knocks upon your door and fires are lit within,
Open up your mind, your heart,
And let the seasons in;
Look past at bounty, harvests won,
Respect the earth, the moon, the sun
And when the winter seems too deep,
Remember close your friends to keep.
Take your peace and take your rest,
Live for now and know you're blessed.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lazing on a sunny afternoon

Having just been on an extended visit to the UK, I find that returning to Asturias takes a bit of getting used to; slowing down to the pace of life we have here at La Pasera. It seems strange to motor along main roads and motorways alone or accompanied only by a couple of cars or a lorry. It's feels odd to walk through our local town and see very few faces and empty shops and bars, the peace and quiet is a touch unnerving for the first few hours as your hearing re-adjusts to the rich array of sounds from nature. The light bathing the rich green landscapes overloads your optical nerves and is so vivid and vibrant, the autumn light is especially beautiful.

Apart from Internet access, we don't have constant contact with the outside world through TV, radio or newspapers. We don't shop more than once a fortnight or three weeks, we rarely have the need to go to a city for business and we seldom feel the need to experience the buzz of night-life for drinks or restaurants. In fact we lead very quiet lives with little distraction apart from our own pursuits and hobbies, maintaining the land, growing and processing our own fruit and vegetables and the occasional get together with friends and neighbours. Many would find it dull or boring and a few would be driven crazy but for us, it is a little piece of bliss.

My first Sunday, sunny afternoon back in Asturias was lunch on the terrace comprising home-made cream of marrow soup, grilled figs with blue cheese, aubergine pate and a glass of fresh apple juice. A quick catch up with the world news was followed by bottling pickled figs, a new recipe for us from Isobel - thanks Isobel, first tasting gets a big thumbs up. We then took ourselves off to our local beach for a dip in the ocean. We had heard that the water is the warmest it had been all year so we were both up for it. The sky was broken high cloud and at around 24 degrees C it was a really pleasant and comfortable afternoon.

We walked a circuitous route from home through the country lanes to Guadamia, a long and narrow bay that is fed from a small river that originates in nearby mountains. The river flows cold all year round but the warmed waters of the bay of Biscay temper the shock of the cool. We sat on the deserted beach for an hour or so, explored a few caves and then came back via a nearby village to collect more figs; this time for drying in the dehydrator. We stumbled across a large Sweet Chestnut tree and collected a handful of chestnuts which we will roast this this evening.

Back home we had a welcome drink in the garden accompanied by the cats and caught up with the goings on in and around the doesn't take long to re-adjust.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The vegetable garden as Autumn deepens.


As the season progresses we are still having high temperatures and in spite of the early morning chill, the midday sunshine is still hot enough and thus the vegetable garden continues to provide us with a variety of Summer vegetables that are slowly coming to an end. This is the case for the aubergines, marrows and the three different types of peppers we grew this year.

One of the crops that surpassed our expectations was the butternut squash and out of two plants, we have harvested 30 fruits that are left to dry for a few days against a south facing wall. They will soon be stored away to be used in cooking throughout the year. One of our favourite ways of cooking it is simply roasted with sage, salt and pepper. Delicious!

There have been crops that were a disappointment due to adverse weather conditions. This was the case with the onions, we normally are self sufficient but this year the bulbs failed to grow and the ones we harvested were the size of a golf ball at best. Still, they were delicious in cooking. Green beans usually perform well here at La Pasera but the cold and wet weather earlier on in the season significantly decreased the amount we were able to leave to dry to be used later on as a legume in soups and stews. I recently heard the locals saying that the better taste of legumes this year compensates for the low yield.

Ruby Swiss chard is a vegetable we are trying this year for the first time and we find it to be far superior both in taste and texture than those varieties with light green stems. We tend to harvest it when still young and tender.

On the pest front, the brassicas normally get attacked by caterpillars towards the end of September and we just go around removing them by hand. This year this pest was noted during August and in greater number. We persisted with our mechanical control method, a gloved hand and it is now that the brassicas start picking up. It seems the drawing days herald the end of this pest.

Roots vegetables are coming up and will hopefully continue to provides with fresh produce during the Winter months when there is little else growing. We look forward to continue harvesting leeks, beetroot and carrots while the Winter lettuce is coming on well.

Fennel usually does well in our vegetable plot and we feel more positive about the crop of celeriac that this year is already showing signs of root growth. Celeriac is a vegetable that needs to have old leaves removed to encourage root growth rather than vigorous foliage and a mat of fibrous roots as was the last year's case when we did not remove old leaves regularly.

Our crop rotation system will free up the soil over the nest few weeks by which time we will remove the plants that have finished cropping and will dig over the soil before is sown with green oats as a green manure.
At times, is it hard not to follow Gawber's example and thus sit or lie on the pebble mosaics that adorn the garden and enjoy the hit that radiates from the pebbles. This is something I love doing while the sun sets.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Making jam- Fig and muscovado


As a jam lover, breakfast would not be the same without a serving of some home-made jam on a hot slice of our home-made bread toasted and dressed with either butter or some vegetable oil. For the last few months I have being decreasing my intake of butter and thus I have being dressing my toast with olive oil or rape seed oil. The use of rape seed oil is very controversial here in Spain since the time in the 1980s when rapeseed oil intended for human consumption was adulterated with some mineral oil and sold cheaply as a cooking oil; many people died and many more suffered ill health as a consequence.

As a result, you can never find this nice and delicate tasting oil here in Spain. We obtain ours during one of the several trips Ian makes back to the UK to visit friends and family.

Making this jam is a simple and very rewarding process. Today I want to share with you my method for jam-making. It is a method I have being following for several years and that works very well for us. We usually make about 30 kg of fruit worth of jam some of which we give away to friends and family.

Some cookery books present jam recipes in which you need to add water but I never do this regardless of the water content within the fruit used; the more water the longer you will need to boil the jam for it to set. Other recipes will advice you to use preserving sugar with added pectin, a natural substance that makes the jam set and fruits contain in varying concentrations. I personally no longer use this sugar. Other recipes will advice you to use the juice of a lemon per kg of fruit as a source of pectin but the acidity within the lemon may alter the resulting jam therefore I do not use lemon either.

Another alteration I have made to traditional jam recipes entails a reduction of the amount of sugar used. Instead of using equal quantities of fruit and sugar, I always use 0.5 kg of sugar per kg of fruit; using a lesser proportion will compromise both the setting and preserving of the jam. The use of sugar as a natural food preservative has being practised in home cooking  for a very long time.


1kg ripe figs
500gr muscovado sugar, this gives a lovely caramelised taste to your jam but you can use any other type of sugar.

Chop the fig and in a large cooking pan cover them with the sugar and leave over night. I always follow this step as it draws the liquid from the fruit. Just before you start boiling the fruit, stir the mixture until the sugar is dissolved.
Bring the mixture to the boil on a high fire and stir constantly so that the sugar does not stick and burn at the bottom of the pan. When you struggle to control the spluttering from the mixture, lower the heat a notch. Remember you are dealing with a very hot substance that will burn you.
Continue  lowering the heat to a level you can control the spluttering by constantly stirring while ensuring you boil the jam at the highest possible temperature.

Once the fruit changes colour and becomes thicker, it is time to test if the jam is done. To test this, you need to have cooled a side plate in the fridge. Pour a spoonful of the jam on the plate, put the plate back in the fridge for a couple of minutes until the jam cools down and run your finger across the blob of jam. The jam will be made when you note a slight ripple forming on its surface.

Sterilize your jam jars in the oven for 15 minutes at 100 Celsius and bottle the jam. A bain marie will ensure your jam will keep for over 12 months without the need to use other preservatives.

Alterations of this recipe include adding mixed spice, cinnamon or vanilla. When adding one of these spices, I tend to use brown sugar with a softer taste than muscovado or white sugar.

Vanilla works particularly well with muscovado sugar but is best used after the jam has matured for several months. I look forward to opening the last jar from last year of jam I made with figs, muscovado and vanilla.
I hope you have a go at jam making and look forward to hearing from you telling me about your own favourite recipes. One of my favourite is fig with brown sugar and vanilla but you need to let it mature for a few months for the delicate tastes to balance out.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Decorating with mosaic.


I have always being fascinated by mosaics and admired their beauty, durability and functional value. I never miss an opportunity to visit Roman mosaics or study the art and technical skills involved in their creation. It wasn't until we had a holiday in the Greek Island of Rhodes when my passion for mosaics was really awoken. Ian then bought me a book on pebble mosaic art by Maggy Howarth, a British mosaicist  responsible for a resurgence in interest within pebble mosaic art worldwide. Her publications, techniques and works of art have being a great source of information and continue to inspire my own pebble mosaics. Howarth's influence is evident in the Swallows mosaic I made as a commissioned piece.

With regards to my Roman tessellated mosaics, I consider myself a self-taught mosaicist. My skill as a mosaicist is based on practice, reading as many books on the subject as I can get my hands on, posing questions to fellow mosaicists and mosaic artists that belong to the same Internet-based mosaic groups I belong; such as Contemporary Mosaic Art (CMA), Mosaic Art and My Mosaic friends. These Internet groups, also offer and opportunity to leave feedback on works of art, something I greatly enjoy doing as it requires from me to closely observe images of mosaics and consider their technical and artistic merits, a great learning opportunity I greatly enjoy. A while back such feedback presented my with the chance to write the prologue to the book: "A Legacy in Stone. The Artistry of Andreas Kunert".

My tessellated mosaics show an interest for geometric patterns within classic Roman mosaics and are influenced by a love for Art Deco, nature and the natural world. From an aesthetic view point, my mosaics are influenced by the materials I enjoy using such as terracotta, marble, limestone and granite while using a rather limited range of colours as we can see within the "Winter Wonderland" I created when commissioned to do a mosaic portraying the White Nancy in Bollington, Cheshire, United Kingdom.

Winter Wonderland, The White Nancy.
Moving to Asturias has enabled me to pursue and develop my interest in mosaics and I am now at a stage where I am keen to experiment with new techniques and methods including making my own substrates (bases upon which the pieces of stone are glued to create a mosaic) so that I can create 3D mosaics and sculptural pieces to adorn our home and garden at La Pasera. There are already several mosaics adorning our home in the manner of wall mosaics, coffee and garden tables. Numerous pebble and tessellated mosaics adorn our herb garden, paths and terraces.


I am planning a trip to Italy in the near future to further my studies and take the opportunity to visit exhibits from some of my favourite mosaic artists. More at a later date.